ID cards to affect foreign consul funding

Government departments are unsure of the effect ID cards will have on foreign consuls, politics.co.uk can reveal today.

Groups representing British citizens in trouble overseas are voicing concerns about the effects ID cards will have on the already stretched resources of Britain’s consular system.

Consuls are funded through a levy placed on passport renewal fees. But the introduction of ID cards will mean British citizens can travel around Europe without the use of a passport, relying instead on the biometric data on the cards to prove their identity.

Given that around 80 per cent of British holidaymakers travel within Europe, many are expecting passport applications to fall significantly. This will have a strong adverse effect on consular funding.

Contacted today about the government’s plans to address this funding shortfall, both the Foreign Office and the Home Office were unsure of what steps were being taken to address the problem.

The news that ID cards will affect consular funding comes at a pertinent time for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Some groups are calling for consular funding to be reformed, and critics are pointing to an already overstretched service overseas.

Pauline Crowe, chief executive of Prisoner’s Abroad, praised the efforts of consuls around the world but warned they were operating under severe resource shortages.

“There hasn’t been the investment that perhaps is necessary because of increased demand,” she told politics.co.uk.

“The pressures on them have grown enormously over the last few years, not least of all because of the public expectation they will be there to help them no matter what – be it passport loss, hospital or arrest.”

Fair Trials Abroad is calling on the government to urgently review the process by which consuls are funded.

“Just like any other public service, British nationals should expect to receive the help they need when they need it,” said senior policy officer, Amanda Cumberland.

“For this reason, we are today urging the government to conduct a review of the funding model for Britain’s consular services network, to ensure that Britons in real distress abroad can continue to rely on the high level and quality of assistance that the Foreign Office seeks to provide,”

An FCO spokesman defended his department’s record, however.

“The majority of visits abroad are trouble free,” the spokesman said.

“But when things do go wrong we try to visit hospitals within 24 hours. We visit prisons within a similar time, as long as it’s fairly easy to get to. We liaise with next of kin, prison authorities and others, depending on the situation.”

Departmental confusion over responsibility for changes caused by ID cards reinforces the arguments of critics, who say the cards could turn into an expensive bureaucratic nightmare.

Beyond the civil liberty objections to the scheme, groups opposing the cards point to the wide ranging administrative ramifications of the plans, and also to the government’s less than impressive record with complex technology projects.